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Video: Ed McMahon on foreclosure fight

TODAY contributor
updated 6/18/2008 8:15:50 AM ET 2008-06-18T12:15:50

As he fights foreclosure on his home in the prestigious Santa Monica Mountains, TV icon Ed McMahon said the same thing all too many Americans are saying these days: “I didn't see it coming.”

Since 1991, Ed McMahon’s six-bedroom Mediterranean mansion in Beverly Hills has been a proud, everyday reminder of his accomplishments and affluence, forged over a long career that made him a familiar face for many decades.

But now television’s most famous second banana is wondering if it will all slip away.

Speaking with TODAY’s Al Roker from his imperiled home, McMahon acknowledged the shame of owning up to a lost fortune that was some 40 years in the making. “I should have been on the ball,” he said. “It's my fault. I honestly didn't see it coming.”

McMahon, who served as Johnny Carson’s sidekick on “The Tonight Show” for 30 years, still displays his trademark joviality. But at age 85, he knows his situation is not a laughing matter.

“I feel like I’m starting all over again,” McMahon said. “Somehow or other, we’re going to work this out.”

Highs and lows
McMahon, who served as a U.S. Marines fighter pilot during World War II, first gained national notoriety as announcer on the daytime game show “Who Do You Trust” in 1957 — working alongside a young newcomer named Johnny Carson. Both left to join “The Tonight Show” in 1962.

Over the years, McMahon would find his niche as the gregarious sidekick to the more reserved host. His infectious, sometimes uncontrolled laughter and bombastic introduction of “Heeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny” became trademarks.

McMahon also found success striking out on his own as a product pitchman and host of high-rated shows like “Star Search” (1983-1995) and “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” (1982-1998). He also was a celebrity spokesman for the annual sweepstakes sponsored by American Family Publishers — an irony not lost on him.

“Yeah, I gave away $130 million,” McMahon said. “If I had that right now….”

McMahon said it has been a “perfect storm” of setbacks that have put him and wife Pamela in such financial disarray: specifically, two divorces; financial obligations or assistance to family and friends; and a slowdown in workload — due in part to a broken neck suffered in a fall 18 months ago.

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He also cites bad investments and his own poor money management. “Poor planning,” he told Roker. “You can underline that about 10 times, OK? Because you know, you try to surround yourself with people who are going to help you. I just did my work. Other people took care of things.

“I wish I paid more attention, let's say that,”  he continued. “Here's my problem — I say ‘yes’ far too often and I should say ‘no.’ People come to me, they bring me ideas. These seem like the greatest ideas in the world. They didn't turn out to be that.”

And now, like so many other Americans in the current mortgage crisis, McMahon finds himself at risk of losing his treasured home.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, more than 1 million homeowners are now in foreclosure. In addition, one of every 194 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing in the first three months of 2008, according to RealtyTrac.

“I figure I'm involved on a level that may be higher than somebody else,” McMahon said. “So, I had to come out. I felt compelled.”

Where the heart is
Earlier this month, McMahon went public with his financial troubles after reports circulated he was $644,000 in arrears on a $4.8 million loan for his home, and that his lender, Countrywide Financial Corporation, had filed a notice of default.

An arbitration judgment in April ruled that McMahon also owes American Express more than $747,000, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records.

McMahon has had his 7,000-square-foot home on the market for the past two years. Originally, it was listed for $7.6 million. It was lowered to $5.7 million last January, but is now back up to $6.5 million.

McMahon’s camp has cited several reasons for the situation — from an initial reluctance to sell during the national housing slump to fears prospective buyers were actually paparazzi trying to get a bird’s-eye view of neighbor Britney Spears’ house.

There was also the stigma of a well-publicized mold problem back in 1992 that earned McMahon a $7.2 million insurance settlement. McMahon’s real estate agent has said that issue has long been corrected.

But for McMahon, the prospect of eventually selling the home does not necessarily lift his spirits, despite the financial benefits.

“I would like to stay in this house,” he told Roker. “That's it. It's just a … a general feeling of the release of this.”

There have been some recent silver linings for McMahon, however. The public acknowledgment of his dire financial straits has at least resulted in some more buyer interest in his home — and the emergence of friends eager to help out. Current “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno and Donald Trump have publicly offered their financial assistance. Others have made private overtures.

“Well, it feels great,” McMahon added. “It’s overwhelming.”

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